There have been people living in the Newhaven area for many thousands of years. Relics found on Castle Hill include Stone Age struck flints, Neolithic pottery, the contents of a carpenter’s bag dating from the Bronze Age and early Iron Age items. Fortifications were probably first built on Castle Hill in around 400BC. Later, during the Roman occupation, it is thought that there was a Roman Villa here and it is also possible that the Roman Road, Ermin Street began at Newhaven.
The Saxons arrived in Sussex in 477AD, following the withdrawal of Roman power from Britain. They founded a village called Meeching on the banks of the River Ouse below Castle Hill. The name Meeching comes from the Saxon word “meces” and means the people or the camp of the sword. The village of Meeching continued quietly for several centuries.
The Normans arrived immediately after the Conquest in 1066 and built St Michael’s Church around 1120. The original Norman chancel, tower and unusual semi-circular apse still remain today.
The course of the River Ouse varied over the centuries. It is thought that during Roman times its mouth was below Castle Hill, close to where the harbour is today. However, during subsequent centuries, the river silted up and meandered across the estuary.
During Medieval times, the river went out to sea at Seaford, which was a port and limb of the Cinque Ports. However, a disastrous storm in 1579 blocked the river mouth and caused the river to break through the shingle bank somewhere between Meeching and Seaford. The whole area was very marshy and the river was very sluggish, with many channels, leading to much flooding of the whole valley up to Lewes. Eventually, the situation became so bad that the southern section of river was straightened and a new cutting made to the sea at the foot of Castle Hill. A fixed harbour entrance became established which was known as the New Haven. The name Meeching gradually fell into disuse, although it is still preserved in local street names and the name of a local school.
Indeed, the local landowning family, the Gibbons, were still known as the Lords of the Manor of Meeching during the 18th century. Edward Gibbon, the well known author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire epic, was a nephew of this family and is reputed to have written part of his famous book whilst staying in Newhaven.
The construction of piers at the eastern and western sides of the harbour was carried out from 1630 onwards. Newhaven became one of only two fully navigable harbours between the Isle of Wight and Dover. The harbour flourished with oak from the Weald of Sussex being exported and wine and spirits from the continent being imported through Newhaven. Another interesting import was block ice from the Baltic, which was stored in ice pits in Meeching Quarry for distribution around the area to butchers, fishmongers, hotels and large houses. A shipbuilding industry developed in the town, together with two breweries, one of which produced the legendary Tipper Ale and survived to the end of the 19th Century.
Up until 1784, the only ways to cross the River Ouse were by ferry or by fording it at low tide. In this year, a wooden cantilever draw bridge was built across the river and it is this bridge which forms a central part of the Newhaven Town Council crest. The bridge survived until 1866, when it was replaced by an iron swing bridge, opened to let ships and boats pass by a gang of men turning a huge wheel. Many local residents remember this bridge, which was still in operation in 1974, when it too was replaced by the present day electrically opened bridge. The frequent opening of the bridge to allow ships and boats into and out of harbour is still a part of life in Newhaven, and a sight that is not commonly seen elsewhere.
In 1761 flour grinding mills operated by the tide were erected by the Duke of Newcastle on the shoreline between Newhaven and Seaford. These soon gave rise to a flourishing village, known as Tide Mills, complete with its own railway halt and a rail spur from the mill through the village to the mainline. At its peak, almost a hundred people lived there. The mills were later owned and operated by William Catt and his family. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the repeal of the Corn Laws, cheap rail transport and the infilling of the estuary led to the mills falling into disuse and the decline of the village. A few of the residential properties continued to be lived in until they were demolished for security reasons at the outbreak of the Second World War. Today all that remains of this “lost village” are foundation walls, the disused railway platform, sleepers and rails and the old Mill Creek.
In the year 1800 HMS Brazen, an 18 gun sloop of war under the command of Captain James Hanson, was wrecked beneath the cliffs of Newhaven. There was only one survivor, a non swimmer named Jeremiah Hill who was plucked from the sea and winched up the cliffs to safety by two local men at great risk to their own lives using a wheeled crane from a nearby farm. The weather was so atrocious that further attempts to reach the men in the water failed. The remaining 105 men from the ship all lost their lives and many of their bodies were washed up on Newhaven’s beaches over the following days. This terrible tragedy seems to have inspired a local committee to look into the provision of a lifeboat at Newhaven. In May 1803, a lifeboat of William Greathead’s “Original” design was provided, partly paid for by Lloyds of London and partly by money raised locally. This was more than 20 years before the formation of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in 1824. The Newhaven Lifeboat Station was granted the Freedom of Newhaven by Newhaven Town Council in 2003 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Station and the great esteem in which the town holds the men who risk their lives to save those in peril on the sea. There is an impressive memorial to HMS Brazen and her men in the churchyard at St Michael’s church.
The railway reached Newhaven in 1847. The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway built the line between Lewes and Newhaven, and supplied three purpose built mahogany paddle steamers with oscillating engines, called Newhaven, Brighton and Dieppe with the intention of commencing a regular ferry service to Dieppe. Up until this time cross channel ferries mainly operated from Brighthelmstone (now Brighton), using the Chain Pier following its construction in 1820, although there were also some services starting from Newhaven or from Shoreham. This was not a good time to launch a new ferry link with France, however. Revolution was stirring on the other side of the Channel. Indeed the exiled last King of France, Louis Philippe and his Queen, crossed the Channel to Newhaven in 1848 during their flight from France and stayed overnight at the Bridge Hotel in Bridge Street.
Despite this shaky beginning, the service became properly established from 1851 onwards. Following the arrival of the railway, a marine passenger terminal had been built within the sheltered harbour and an imposing hotel, the London and Paris Hotel, nearby. The ferry service flourished because it provided the shortest land and sea route between London and Paris. The hotel became famous and well loved and survived for 110 years, eventually being demolished to make way for the present day roll on roll off ferry terminal. During the 1890s a Mr Charles Wells used to hold so many riotous parties at the hotel that he was asked to seek alternative accommodation and rented a house in Fort Road. He had won £50,000 in one night at Monte Carlo, which would be equivalent to millions today, and was the “Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” remembered in the well known song. Apparently, he actually “broke the bank” at Monte Carlo three times! Despite this amazing fortune, he died a pauper.
During the 1860s Lord Palmerston, fearing invasion by the French, commissioned a fortress to protect the harbour entrance. Work began on Newhaven Fort in 1864 under the command and working to the plans of 22 year old Lieutenant John Ardagh of the Royal Engineers. The Fort is ideally situated on the cliff overlooking the harbour and commanding the approaches to it. The natural defence provided by the cliff is supplemented by a dry moat crossed by a drawbridge. Underground passages lead to a lunette battery and to casemates protecting the moats. Rainwater was collected in huge underground tanks whcih would have provided the 300 man garrison with adequate water to maintain a lengthy siege. Although the French invasion failed to materialise, the Fort protected the harbour during both the First and Second World Wars, and is now open to the public as an extremely interesting visitor attraction.
During the First World War, Newhaven was a principal port for the transportation of general supplies and munitions to France. Some 17,000 crossings of the Channel took place and over six million tons of supplies were carried to the French coastal ports. Eleven of the ships were lost to enemy attacks from mines, submarines, aeroplanes or destroyers and about a hundred of the seamen who had become so well known to the local townspeople were killed. Many survivors of the ships were brought back to the port.
After the Armistice, the Newhaven Urban Council erected two memorials, both designed by the Council’s Surveyor, Mr C T Hooper. One commemorated the men of Newhaven who had been killed during the War, and the other commemorated the men of the Mercantile Marine who had been killed whilst sailing to and from Newhaven. Both of these memorials have been recently moved by the Town Council from their original sites to the Memorial Gardens in South Way, which provide a fitting setting for them and where they continue to be the focus of the annual Remembrance Day service.
Newhaven also played an important role during the Second World War, in particular in the ill-fated Dieppe Raid on 19th August 1942. Fifty-nine landing craft set out from Newhaven on the evening of 18th August carrying the 14th Canadian Army Tank Battalion, the Camerons of Canada and No 3 Commando. Once out of harbour, they rendezvoused with vessels from Portsmouth, Shoreham and Southampton for the crossing to Dieppe. The Raid was designed to foster German fears of an attack in the west and to compel the enemy to strengthen their channel defences at the expense of other areas of operation. It would also provide an opportunity to test new techniques and equipment, and be the means to gain experience and knowledge for planning a great amphibious assault.
The plan called for attacks at five different points on a front of roughly ten miles. Four simultaneous flank attacks were to go in at dawn, followed half an hour later by the main attack on the town of Dieppe itself.
There were few locations on the French coast that were less suited to an assault landing. The high cliffs lining the main landing beaches gave considerable protection to the defending troops, but presented huge obstacles to the allied invaders. The tanks were not equipped to cope with the conditions on the Dieppe beach or the vertical concrete sea defence wall in front of the town. The intelligence provided to the assaulting troops was very poor and the information on the German defences was hopelessly out of date. Within a few hours of the start of the assault, 4000 of the men were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Canadians lost two thirds of their force, with 907 dead or later to die from their wounds. The operation was a tactical and human disaster.
Arguments over the outcome of the Raid continue to the present day. Some people consider that it was a pointless slaughter and question the wisdom of attacking a heavily fortified port like Dieppe in broad daylight at this stage in the War. Others say that the Raid led to improvements in techniques, fire support and tactics which ultimately allowed casualties on D Day to be reduced to a minimum. Whatever the conclusion, there can be no doubt that valuable lessons were learnt, but a frightful price was paid during those early morning hours of August 19th 1942.
A memorial to the Royal Canadian Engineers who lost their lives during the Dieppe Raid was unveiled on 17th August 1977 at the Memorial Gardens in South Way. Unlike the two previously mentioned First World War memorials, fund raising for this was carried out over 3,500 miles away from Newhaven in the town of Sarnia, Ontario. It is now regarded as the “Canadian” memorial and is the focus of the annual Dieppe Raid commemoration service held every August.
It is much less well known that during the Second World War there was a secret intelligence centre, known as HMS Forward, hidden underneath Heighton Hill, just outside Newhaven. The entrance to the centre was inside the Guinness Trust Holiday Home at the top of the hill. From there a flight of 120 steps led deep inside the earth to a network of tunnels below, which contained the most sophisticated communications devices then available. Ten radar stations along the Sussex coast reported to HMS Forward, who liaised by teleprinter to similar centres at Dover and Portsmouth to provide comprehensive intelligence about everything moving on, under or over the English Channel. After the War, the tunnels were abandoned and largely forgotten except by adventurous local children. A local group of interested residents are now trying to obtain funding to turn the tunnels into a tourist attraction.
During the latter half of the twentieth century the port of Newhaven, in common with many other ports such as Liverpool or London, experienced a decline. Once nearly the whole population of the town worked either in the port or on the railway, but this is no longer the case. Nonetheless, Newhaven people remain proud of their maritime heritage and their town’s status as a port. The town has started the twenty-first century on the crest of a wave of regeneration initiatives, many of which reflect the maritime heritage of the town and provide a link between Newhaven’s historic past and the future.
(photographs by kind permission of the Newhaven Historical Society)